Written on October 30, 2023 by Amy Harris, MPH, RN. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), while a reality of being sexually active, do not have to mean the end of a healthy and pleasurable sex life. Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is one of the more easily transmitted and, therefore, one of the most common STIs. However, HSV is one STI you can get, even without being sexually active. Read on to learn more about HSV transmission and what you can do to protect yourself and your partners.
Herpes is an infection caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV causes sores or blisters on your mouth (oral herpes) and/or genitals (vulva, vagina, butt cheeks, anus, thighs, penis, and scrotum (genital herpes). When herpes appears on the skin, it is called an outbreak. Herpes does not usually cause serious health problems.
There are two types of the Herpes Simplex Virus — HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both types can cause oral and genital infections with nearly the same symptoms . There is no cure for either HSV-1 or HSV-2 — both are a type of lifelong infection, although the number of outbreaks tends to decrease the longer you have the virus.
Herpes is a common virus, just like the cold virus. Over half (50-80 percent) of Americans have oral herpes. About 1 out of 6 Americans have genital herpes. More women than men have genital herpes. So, there is a pretty good chance you know someone living with herpes.
Not to get technical here, but the spread of herpes and your risk of infection depends upon what type of sex you are having and how many partners you have. People describe many behaviors as “sex,” so let’s break it down. Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can spread through :
Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 enter your body through your skin and mucous membranes. The thinner membranes on your mouth and genitals are common entry points for HSV.
Most HSV-1 outbreaks are oral herpes (often called cold sores). HSV is spread chiefly through saliva. Over time, more and more cases of HSV-1 are being seen on or around the genitals (including butt cheeks, scrotum, inner thighs, and labia) in addition to around the mouth and lips. HSV-2 typically causes genital herpes (outbreaks on or around the genitals).
Remember that a person infected with HSV always has the virus in their body. So, even if they don’t have any sores or HSV lesions, they may still have virus particles on and in their skin. These viral particles could infect you if they come in contact with your mucous membranes, an open cut, or a rash on your skin. Shedding HSV virus particles without any symptoms is called asymptomatic shedding.[1,4]
HSV-2 spreads most commonly through asymptomatic shedding through the genital tract — meaning having anal or vaginal intercourse with a partner infected with HSV-2, but may not have any visible sores or other symptoms.
While HSV spreads most commonly through sexual contact, there are other ways to get HSV without having oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse. They are [2,4,6]:
Catching HSV from objects such as shared bed linens, clothing, towels, toilet seats, eating utensils, shared cups/glasses, or public spas is nearly impossible. Unlike the cold virus, which can be spread by touching dirty door handles or sharing a cup with a sick buddy, the herpes virus is more fragile and cannot survive for long outside of warm, moist areas.
Herpes can be a tough STI to avoid, given that people can shed the virus without any symptoms. That means someone could have herpes and not even know it. Never mind the stigma surrounding herpes, making it challenging to have sex-positive conversations with prospective sexual partners.
As with all STIs, practicing safe oral, vaginal, and anal sex when and if you decide to have sex can help reduce your chances of getting an STI. Getting regular sexual health checkups with testing and an assessment of your risk factors is added reassurance that Everlywell is happy to provide through online STD consultations. Other ways to reduce your chances of getting HSV are [1,4,6,8,9]:
While it isn’t curable, many people never experience any herpes symptoms or have an outbreak. That is why it is important to know your herpes testing options if you are sexually active. If you or your partner do test positive for herpes, know that there are now multiple treatment options available to help manage outbreaks.
Treatment for your HSV has never been easier now that Everlywell offers herpes online treatment for those meeting qualifications. With online STD consultations and treatment from the privacy of your own home, and at-home STD screening tests to put your mind at ease, Everlywell makes living with herpes so much easier — because looking after your sexual health and well-being is just as important as remembering to take vitamins or go to the doctor for regular health check-ups.